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Water: a looming crisis?
Paris, France, 3-6 June 1998

International Conference
on World Water Resources at the Beginning of the 21st Century

Conclusions and Recommendations

Water Quality and Environmental Impact
Data and Improvement of Water Resources Assessment
Impact of Human Activity on Water Resources
Extremes of Water Resources and their Management
Economic and Social Aspects of Water Resources

Water Quality and Environmental Impact    Back to top

We are facing a water quality crisis. Almost one-quarter of the world population lacks a safe supply of water and half the population lacks adequate sanitation. Millions of people die annually from diseases caused by unsafe drinking water and lack of sanitation. While this crisis is most pronounced in the developing countries, the developed world and economies in transition also experience major environmental problems and human health consequences. These have a serious impact on nations' economies.

Reduced water quality has a severe negative impact on ecosystems and habitats that support plant and animal life. Most of our freshwater ecosystems are degraded and their plant and animal populations are at risk. Deterioration of water quality decreases the suitability of water for all purposes and increases the cost of making it available for use, especially for human consumption. It also decreases the value of the legacy we leave to future generations.

Water quality degradation is a consequence of human activities, land use practices and economic development. Land use practices affect the quality of waters in our streams, lakes, groundwater and ultimately the marine environment. Water quality monitoring is not yet developed in some countries, in others it is in decline.

Experience has shown that it is within our ability to slow and reverse water quality degradation, to improve human health and ecosystem integrity. To accomplish this, aggressive, positive and timely policies and actions are needed. We have a moral obligation to ensure that future generations inherit a world with clean water and a healthy environment.

Actions    Back to top

  1. Water quality and quantity are two aspects of water, interdependent and inseparable in all matters of monitoring and management. Therefore, global water assessment should be expanded to cover water quality, including the effects of climate change.

  2. Surface and groundwaters are interconnected parts of the water cycle and should be studied and managed jointly in a holistic approach.

  3. Some quality issues are affected by global processes and long-range transport, and should be addressed by global actions (e.g. acidification).

  4. Monitoring programs should take into account bio-magnification processes in food chains when used to determine the fate and effects of contaminants.

  5. Wetlands are important elements of the environment and can be effective means for water quality treatment.    Back to top

  6. Water quality should not be neglected, even in the face of adverse economic conditions, with proper consideration of priorities of human needs.

  7. There is a need for simple protocols for baseline ecological and chemical data gathering and analysis, which are adjusted regionally.

  8. Systems for measuring, monitoring, analysing, summarizing and disseminating water quality information should be strengthened and supported. The international community is called upon to provide help. The recommended density is at least 1 station per 100,000 people, the desirable level is 1 station per 10,000.

  9. Hydrological and quality monitoring in large-scale socio-economic development plans should be emphasized.

  10. Water quality studies should be global and process-oriented. They should consider land use and combine site-specific studies in an integrated watershed management framework which considers local socio-economic and cultural conditions.    Back to top

  11. The different hydrological and hydro-chemical conditions (e.g. humid versus arid and semi-arid zones) should be recognized in studies, land and water management and policies.

  12. Many water quality issues are local. They require local study, monitoring, policies and management.

  13. There are still gaps in understanding the links between freshwater microbiology and hydrological processes and water quality.

  14. Important emerging issues include micro-organic pollutants and micro-organisms.

  15. Potable water quality and sanitation are high priorities for developing countries. Dealing with them requires inter-agency collaboration.    Back to top

  16. It is wise to learn from past successes and failures and adjust policies to local conditions for monitoring, water quality criteria, land use and pollution reduction.

  17. It is necessary to build capacity at the public, professional and institutional levels.

  18. The links between water quality and human health should be dealt with in an interdisciplinary and inter-institutional manner.

  19. Water quality laws, wherever they exist, should be enforced.

  20. Public awareness and public participation are important elements of policies and actions for water quality management and environmental protection.    Back to top

  21. The agricultural community should be encouraged to support the reduction of non-point pollution.

Data and Improvement of Water Resources Assessment    Back to top

To minimize the risk that the decisions of resource managers will fail to provide water of adequate quality and quantity at the right time and in the right place, and hence submit their communities to the consequences of water-related hazards such as floods, droughts, pollution events and outbreaks of water-borne diseases, better information about water is required because information is the antidote to uncertainty.

Actions    Back to top

  1. Water specialists should educate themselves about the needs of the people who use their products, continually seek more effective ways of making their information available and useful, and educate users about the benefits of water resources information.

  2. All relevant components of the hydrological system should be considered and interdependencies among those components taken into account. Surface and groundwaters should be considered as two complementary components of the same resource. In addition to 'conventional' measurements of precipitation, streamflow and groundwater level, information should be provided on such aspects as glacier dynamics, soil moisture, the geological characteristics of aquifers, the flora and fauna present in water bodies and the presence of contaminants. An integrated approach to database and information management should be adopted.

  3. The scales, in time and space, on which water-related measurements are made should be appropriate to the characteristic scales of the phenomena under consideration and the expected use of the information. Information on global and country scales is appropriate for the development of international and national policies but water management decisions are commonly made on smaller scales and within the framework of river basins and aquifers. Future water resources assessments should reflect this.

  4. Indicators of the status and trend of water resources should be developed to provide information that is user-friendly and comprehensible to non-specialists. Opportunities should continually be explored to ensure that data obtained for one purpose are made available for other purposes.

  5. Because water scarcity reflects a mismatch between availability and demand, information on the patterns of water demand and use should receive particular attention. In sum, all the 'stocks and flows' - natural and artificial - in the hydrological system should be quantified to the extent that resource managers are able to determine the effect of manipulation in one part of the system on other parts. Water-related information should be managed within the framework of the system under consideration, normally the river basin/aquifer system.    Back to top

  6. The management of water-related information should be integrated with that of information about related aspects of the biophysical environment (e.g. the requirements of migratory birds), human society (e.g. the recreational and amenity values of water courses) and the economy (e.g. food production, industrial use of process water). Water-related information should be integrated into the development of strategies and action plans for comprehensive environmental management.

  7. Efforts should continue to be directed towards understanding the physical and biological processes that control how hydrological systems function. A commensurate increase in data collection will be required, in terms of both the length of record and the range of variables. This will provide, inter alia, the ability to develop models which can be used to extrapolate to locations for which no observational data are available. Particular effort is required in hitherto neglected environments, including mountainous and glaciated areas, extremely arid areas, wetlands and individually small features such as brooks and ponds which collectively have great significance for hydrological and ecological processes.

  8. Maintenance of basic monitoring programmes in representative or strategic locations is essential, to enable 'early warning' identification of long-term trends and to support the development and testing of hydrological models. The lessons of history - that emerging environmental issues have not always been anticipated by policy makers but frequently first identified by scientists - should never be forgotten.

  9. Formal quality assurance procedures for observational data and model implementation should be established, including adoption of appropriate common standards and documentation of procedures. Estimates of uncertainty should as a rule be made for observational data, water balances and model outputs.

  10. Information should be available not simply on average conditions but also on the variability of water resources in time and space. There should be a particular focus on actual or potential stresses or 'crises' as, for example, the hydrological extremes of flood and drought, the locations where there is an extreme mismatch between supply and demand, and water bodies potentially subject to an ecological crisis such as an algal bloom. Such 'crisis' situations should always have real-time information (now-casts and forecasts) to hand.    Back to top

  11. The potential of modern computing, remote sensing and information management technologies should be fully utilized to:


    make inexpensive, routine observations and measurements that were hitherto unfeasible (e.g. of spatial distributions of soil moisture using satellite imagery);


    develop computer-based methods (models, GIS) which can describe, explain and predict the behaviour of hydrological systems to the levels of accuracy and confidence required by decision makers. Intercomparison of models using standardized datasets should receive high priority;


    develop economical procedures for combining 'real world' observations with the outputs of computer models;


    provide up-to-date directories of water data and information, and how to access them;


    display water-related information in a way that is readily understood by non-specialists.

  12. International efforts should be encouraged to establish regional and global monitoring and data management systems such as WHYCOS (World Hydrological Cycle Observing System), the GRDC (Global Runoff Data Centre, Germany) and GEMS/Water (Global Environmental Monitoring System).

  13. Objective assessments of the capabilities of agencies, policies, laws and other aspects of the water management system - as well as of the water resource itself - should be available because the ability to manage water successfully, particularly under 'crisis' conditions, is not simply a function of the status of the water resource.

  14. New ways should be sought to finance the provision of water-related data and information. These may include, for example, levies on water users which are specifically allocated to resource monitoring and research, or the closer linkage of water monitoring with 'state of the environment reporting'. The issue of intellectual property rights to water information must be resolved urgently.

Impact of Human Activity on Water Resources    Back to top

Any assessment of how much of the impact on water resources is exclusively of human origin and how much is induced by natural variability must consider the regional hydrological characteristics, particularly valid when referring to the arid and semi-arid regions, and the humid tropics. Impact analysis of human activity should serve as a basis for identifying appropriate mitigation schemes.

Methodological aspects    Back to top

  1. In defining water uses and water needs, computing methods need to be harmonized. Rainfall as an input is generally not taken into account.

  2. Time and spatial scales need to be evaluated, especially in terms of groundwater-related issues.

  3. In addition, concepts like 'water exploitation' are used ambiguously, which prevents an objective interpretation of available data or reports.

Institutional considerations    Back to top

  1. Institutional reforms are necessary to address the increasing stress on water resources.

  2. Sustainable water resources development requires an increase in stakeholder participation as, for example, in the establishment of river basin authorities.

  3. Public awareness needs to be strengthened at all levels.

Regulatory issues    Back to top

  1. Most regions where the impact of human activity is strong require new water laws, introducing such concepts as sustainable development and sound management.

  2. Regulations and implementation of water laws need to be strengthened through institutional reform and capacity building.

Policy considerations    Back to top

  1. Effective policies for water resources protection are required, especially in the case of groundwater.

  2. A multi-criteria approach should be introduced in decision-making processes and in defining policies at local, national and regional levels.

Capacity building    Back to top

  1. There is a need for capacity building at all levels. This means the introduction of new multidisciplinary approaches in all the sciences, including natural and social sciences.

Extremes of Water Resources and their Management    Back to top

Water resources are one of the primary driving forces of sustainable development, with the extremes of water resources emerging as the most urgent issue.

Key issues    Back to top
Although many approaches have been used in the past, the measures for determining the consequence and implication of water scarcity for human and ecological well-being are not standardized nor are they well accepted. Policy analysis should be conducted using computer-based reasoning supported by models and methods with scientific integrity, transparent enough to be easily understood, with participation of stakeholders and experts, proper consideration of the social dimension, and with focus on an integrated approach.

The time horizon of potential problems should be divided into three time frames:

  • short term (days to weeks): floods, weather-related events, accidents, etc.

  • medium term (months to years): droughts, social disruptions (war, etc.), migration, water quality, environmental degradation including effects of human activities, economic factors etc.

  • long term (years to decades): climate change, population growth, etc.

General    Back to top

  1. A basic water requirement of around 50 l/day/person should be recognized as a basic human right and be the primary goal for all developing nations.

  2. Measures to avert water conflicts should be promoted, including co-operation, exchange of information, etc.

  3. The water and sanitation budget should have a higher share of the national development budget.

  4. Water quality issues are as important as water quantity issues and the two should be considered together.

  5. The water community should perpetually collect scientific and socio-economic data.

  6. Many types of expertise, both in the social and scientific domain, should be mobilized to address water scarcity issues.

  7. It is vital to re-emphasize the need for short-term and medium-term policies to have long-term perspectives.

Water scarcity    Back to top

  1. An integrated approach is needed for short-term and long-term planning to meet future water requirements (supply and demand), as well as joint management of surface and groundwater, while accounting for all uses: basic human needs, environmental sustainability, agriculture, recreation and economic uses. This should be done at the global, continental, regional, river basin, national, local levels, etc.

  2. In developing countries where data are unavailable or insufficient, better assessment of water resources availability can be achieved using probabilistic approaches.

  3. Water should be recognized as an economic, environmental and social good. Beyond the basic necessity of 50 l/day/person, water should be paid for, taking into account the social and environmental impacts.

  4. Education and increased awareness are paramount prerequisites to deal with water extremes. This could be done by strengthening national institutions.

  5. Both modern and traditional approaches to water supply management need to be taken advantage of, while recognizing different cultural backgrounds and indigenous management techniques.

  6. There is a need to fight water scarcity by promoting appropriate and efficient water use and re-use in agriculture and industry.

  7. Water demand management needs to be actively promoted in water scarce areas.

Water excess    Back to top

  1. The effective means to reduce death tolls caused by flooding are advance warning and evacuation.

  2. It should be recognized that flooding causes more loss of human life and greater economic losses than most other natural water-related disasters.

  3. Big cities along major rivers could be protected by superdikes and other redevelopment techniques.

  4. Flood control in small basins can use the following measures: retardation facilities such as ponds, infiltration facilities, drainage facilities, flood proofing techniques, and quantitative precipitation forecasts.

  5. Flood control for large rivers can be accomplished through an integrated approach including:


    non-structural measures (letting rivers flood naturally, flood forecasting, flood warning, evacuation, etc.), and/or,


    structural measures (levees, flood diversion, sediment control facilities, etc.).

Economic and Social Aspects of Water Resources    Back to top

There is broad-based agreement that water services should not be free of charge but paid for by the beneficiaries at a socially affordable level beyond basic minimum need. Account should also be taken of the social value of water, which is directly linked to water scarcity, the water-related differences between poor and rich countries and between the users of water themselves. An economic approach to water valuation does not mean that everybody has to pay a high price. Instead of ascribing an economic value, water should be accounted for at its opportunity cost so that its social utility may be estimated in financial terms; an economic value cannot include all values attributed to water.

Actions    Back to top

  1. Further studies are necessary to gain a better understanding of the value of water in its different uses and the scale of water infrastructure.

  2. Agriculture, the main water user, is the most sensitive sector for water pricing and water transfers. Water pricing could be applied to rationalize this dominant water use and to compensate for the social consequences of water transfer.

  3. It is essential to ensure efficiency, transparency and accountability in water resources management as a prerequisite for sound financial management.

  4. Pricing water and water services is necessary not only for economic reasons but also because it will improve allocation of limited water resources between competing users. However, the basic minimum water needs must first be met in all countries.

Institutions    Back to top

The traditional framework based on the distinction between privately owned and public water is changing. More and more, water is considered to be common property.

  1. Improved analysis is required of: (1) the consequences of sharing responsibilities between the local and regional level (in the two-level management system); (2) the role of the private sector and of regulatory institutions; and (3) trading on water transfers between users, especially during droughts.

  2. Impact assessment of land use and climate change on water resources should be improved. This calls for a multidisciplinary approach.

Economic incentives    Back to top

Integrated water resources management must take into account economic, social and environmental aspects. The 'polluter-pays' principle, 'user-pays' approach, 'precautionary principle', etc, may be used. However, before applying these, we must consider the socio-environmental aspects and how much users can afford to pay. There is a need for horizontal integration between users, for instance through institutional development, as well as vertical integration harmonizing local and national interests. Social and political stability is an essential feature of sustainable development that cannot be achieved by following only economic indicators. Water desalinization will be a viable approach for drinking water in arid countries.

  1. Equity is necessary to move towards equality.

  2. There is no global water market yet; on the contrary, several smaller sectorial water markets are functional. The viability of market mechanisms in water resources management should be studied.

Participation    Back to top

Public involvement can vary from consultation to full participation. Water has potential as a powerful tool for co-operation and peace-making. In the past, several international water agreements have been signed even when the parties to the agreement were fighting over other issues.

  1. If we want to involve all stakeholders in the planning, design and funding of water projects, programmes are needed which enhance public awareness of the issues, particularly among women and young people.

  2. It is necessary to analyse the different aspects of this participation through inquiries and social studies which take into account the needs of the users.

  3. There is a need for studies on the cultural aspects of water, consumer behaviour, and the willingness to pay for water and water services.

  4. This new multidisciplinary approach requires collaboration and communication between water specialists and sociologists, for instance through special symposia.

Contacts    Back to top
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